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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

The inexplicable Leo Kottke in concert

Leo Kottke performs Bert Kaempfert's "Wonderland by Night"

No one is remotely like Leo Kottke, as he proved again last month (Feb. 23) at the New York Society for Ethical Culture when he opened a concert in which he and Keller Williams co-headlined.

After quoting late English jazz musician/club owner Ronnie Scott from a night at his club when he said, "I should have stayed in bed—there are more people there," Kottke enthralled an auditorium itself much less than full in a set starting with his almost signature version of Tom T. Hall's classic "Pamela Brown," accompanying himself, as he did throughout the first half of his set, on 12-string acoustic guitar.

As for his guitar playing, it was unexplainable as ever, with "kaleidoscopic chording" coming to mind—but still not doing it justice. His strums seem to twirl around each other, gaining in speed from quarter-note to eighth to 16th to the nth fractions with diamond-cutter precision—that is, once he actually starts playing something.

"Despite everything I and Justin Bieber have in common," he dubiously asserted, "he can't stop and do it again." He was referring to his habitual starting and stopping and restarting and re-stopping a tune, apparently changing his mind on his approach with every chord progression. When he finally does make up his mind, if in fact he does make up his mind, squinting and almost smiling, lost in thought or his rapid rhythm patterns, he still seems to be figuring it all out as he goes along. Indeed, sometimes you're not sure he's started until it's over.

At least such was the case with his performance of "Little Martha," the Allman Brothers classic instrumental that is by now as much Kottke's as theirs. "I never agree with the tuner," he mumbled after, as cramming all those notes and chords into a song or two clearly requires a quick re-tune. "All you really get from it is an opinion."

Kottke turned to his trusty six-string for the second half of the set, a high point of which, after at least a 10 minute tale involving Michael Martin Murphy's sit-down strike at a folk festival in reaction to people talking ("I'm sure he knew it was a bad idea before he did it—and eventually stood up again"), the power of record companies to regrettably insist on Christmas albums, and a gig in Dusseldorf before what could just as meaningfully have been a balloon, he said (though what few people who were there did respond when he fell off the stage), was his version of German orchestra leader/songwriter Bert Kaempfert's 1961 chart-topper "Wonderland by Night."

"As I understand it, in Germany he's reviled as the father of easy-listening music," said Kottke of Kaempfert. "I think they are wrong."

Then, after noting that the late Steve Goodman was so good that nobody—Kottke included--could follow him, Keller Williams came out to conclude the set with a few guitar duets—and Lobo's 1974 vocal hit "Rings"; Keller, it must be noted, deserves credit for being able to follow Leo Kottke.

But the centerpiece of Kottke's set was another vocal tune, his original "Julie's House," which he sang after another meandering story--about getting lost in the boiler room bowels of a Boston nightclub vainly searching for the late Larry Coryell (whom at the time he'd never met) and the joint he was hoping Coryell might have had on him and shared.

"Originally it was called 'Julie's Nut Bread,'" revealed Kottke, "but I was so embarrassed by it that I changed the name to something even more embarrassing," so much so, apparently, that this he would not reveal.

"It was great nut bread, though," he said, as consolation.



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